I admit it. I love to read Esquire magazine. The edginess and yes, the women ain’t bad either. But, I’m happily married so I like the writing best — especially the articles on drinking bourbon.
Charles Pierce is always interesting as well. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, but he’s passionate and thought provoking. In the end, that’s the best compliment I can give to a writer of any kind. Whether I agree or not I keep reading and I…THINK.
Josh Ozersky’s article about finding alternatives to Pappy Van Winkle is a good read. My favorite quote:
“But there is another answer, too, which we hinted at, but will now further explain: You need to find something else — something as similar as possible. Which is problematic.”
When I first started my Pappy journey I was a bourbon neophyte and latched onto the best idea I found. I am a reader and gravitated to Pappy because a talented writer (Wright Thompson) wrote a damn good article about it. He also wrote one about an old bottle of Jim Beam.
It started my pursuit and then when I found it — it more than met expectations. But I had tried so few bourbons at that point. I was, as I said before, not much of a connoisseur.
Ozersky is right. There are a lot of “damn good” bourbons — at least close, if not as good as Pappy Van Winkle — so don’t fret if you can’t find the big kahuna. Just be glad you saved a few bucks and enjoy some of the other great bourbons out there.
Ozersky names a few:
W.L. Weller 12 YR
Jefferson’s Presidential Select 18 YR (from 4 years ago)
Four Roses Single Barrel
William Larue Weller
He notes that W.L. Weller is the closest (according to Julian Van Winkle 7 Year Weller) or William Larue, then Jefferson’s as it has some of the same mash bill and then Maker’s 46 (which is merely wheated) and Four Roses Single Barrel if you can’t find those.
“Of the original lot of Pappy produced in the twilight of the Stitzer-Weller, before it closed in 1992, most of what remains was snatched up by the Van Winkle family, and now constitutes Pappy 23. But the Van Winkle family didn’t get all the juice; some made its way into the hands of the resourceful Trey Zoeller, the founder of Jefferson’s, who sold it as Jefferson’s Presidential Select 17- and 18-year-old four years ago. Some of those bottles are available on the gray market for a high sum indeed, but nothing compared to black-market Pappy Van Winkle 23-year-old.”
I, myself, am a Weller Special Reserve 7 Year Drinker (everyday bourbon) it resembles Pappy Van Winkle though aged at a lower clip. A drop of water and it’s worth much more than it’s $12.99 price tag.
Pappy Van Winkle is damn good bourbon — but…is it worth what it costs?
Here’s what Walker Percy, great writer and bourbon lover, had to to say about the relationship between the price of bourbon and its taste — and — umh…”psychological effect” in his essay, “Bourbon Neat.”
“I can hardly tell one Bourbon from another, unless the other is very bad. Some bad Boubons are even more memorable than good ones. For example, I can recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 Bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. After knocking back two or three shots over a period of half an hour, the three male drinkers looked at each other and said in a single voice: ‘Where are the women?’ I have not been able to locate this remarkable Bourbon since.”
Obviously if you’re on a quest for Pappy Van Winkle you’re not looking for the cheap, woman-enhancing rotgut that Percy is referring to. So let’s talk about bourbon on a champagne budget.
Pappy Van Winkle Suggested Retail Price
First, let’s review the suggested retail — which can be had if you get lucky or at least call a few places and get on a waiting list, camp out for days in a liquor store parking lot, or win the Pappy Van Winkle lottery. Then, we’ll discuss the secondary market or the bourbon underbelly. Where instead of appreciating bourbon for what it is, “entrepreneurial types” are trying to make a quick buck on a high-demand commodity.
Hell, it is as old as America — but I still hate those (you) sons of bitches. (Not really, but you sure make it harder for the rest of us — who just want to find and partake of one of the best bourbons around.)
Pappy Van Winkle already costs a pretty penny, but on the secondary market the price is flat out crazy.
Here is a breakdown of the suggested retail price for Pappy Van Winkle bourbon and rye.
$39.99 – Old Rip Van Winkle Handmade Bourbon 10 Year Old 107 proof
$54.99 – Van Winkle Special Reserve Bourbon 12 Year Old
$69.99 – Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye Whiskey 13 Year Old
$79.99 – Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 15 Year Old
$129.99 – Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 20 Year Old
$249.99 – Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve Bourbon 23 Year Old
I have purchased both the 12 year and 20 year and laid down $60 something and $136.99 respectively — after adding in tax.
The Pappy Van Winkle Price in the Secondary Market
Here’s a sampling of the price of Pappy Van Winkle on the secondary market. These were found on the liquorlist.com. (Send me a check for the free ad boys.)
On the site, Pappy Van Winkle 23 year ran from $1,000 to $2,560, Pappy Van Winkle 20 year ranged from $600 to $2000, and the 15 year was priced from $500 to $800. These are the most sought after of the Van Winkles.
In this case, the 23 year is marked up anywhere from 400% to 1,000%, the 20 from 465% to over 1538%, and the 15 from 750% to 1000%.
Is Pappy Van Winkle Worth 10 Times or More of Its Retail Price?
Just because someone overpays for a commodity like a bourbon, doesn’t mean it’s worth it. We are definitely in some kind of mania — like tulips or dot coms where people have set aside rationality for a season and bought into the idea that something is worth a lot more than its normal price or value.
However in this case, the bigger fool theory does not hold since most buyers of Pappy are not buying it to get rich later, but to drink it now. Of course, the ones who buy it to resell are causing the already low supply to dry up even more for the “regular” bourbon lover who just wants to taste the so called best bourbon in the world.
Now bourbon lovers with money to burn may not have a problem shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars for a bottle of Pappy, but I for one would rather spend my time and money on the almost as good bourbons that are findable at their retail price. As good as Pappy Van Winkle is, it is not in a class by itself, untouchable by any other well-made bourbons.
Of course, I might feel differently — and justify the over-the-top purchase if I’d never found it and wanted to know what all the hype was about. So I can’t begrudge anyone who overpays to experience Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon for the first time.
After tasting the 20 year, I can honestly say I hope I score the 15 or 23 this year — but at its “normal” not “overhyped” price.
Eventually Everyone Who Wants Some Will Get It
The Pappy that is distilling and aging today will be ready for you to consume in 15, 20 or 23 years — or less — and the craze will likely have died down a bit. Most folks will have moved onto the next big thing — maybe some kind of ice-cream flavored vodka or some other marketing influenced monstrosity — and you can buy all the bourbon, and Pappy Van Winkle you can drink.
As Preston Van Winkle (Pappy’s great grandson) once said “a lot of people don’t realize we just can’t crank up the still and have more 20-year old bourbon…tomorrow. We’re not making vodka.”
All Bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle lovers should be thankful for that.
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Okay. I am not finished with it yet, but so far Charles K. Cowdery’s book on the history of bourbon, titled “Bourbon, Straight” is, well…can I give it the best compliment ever — interesting. It’s like Bourbon 101 — and it makes bourbon that much better, especially if you like to engage your mind and palate in your pursuits.
Who wouldn’t love a book that starts like this:
“Like sex, alcohol is one of those subjects where much of what people think is wrong.”
And even better the introduction is titled “Of Sex and Shellfish” — and when you get right down to it, what more do you need to survive — Sex, Shellfish and Bourbon! That sort of boils down (pun intended) life’s essentials.
Good Writing on Bourbon
I live on the coast (Savannah) and love oysters, shrimp, crabs and just about every other kind of shellfish. I also love reading and to be honest, it’s how I discovered bourbon and Pappy Van Winkle. If you’ve read other posts on this blog you know already that Walker Percy introduced me to bourbon and Wright Thompson showed me the secret that Pappy was the best bourbon out there.
However, Chuck Cowdery made me love and appreciate this brown spirit, even more. His overview of the history of America’s spirit is a must-read for anyone new to the bourbon game. Or if you’ve always been a bourbon lover, but never run across it be sure and get a copy pronto.
Bourbon Sampling Guide
It’s that good, informative and yes, interesting. Cowdery writes about the roots of bourbon, the basics of whiskey, how the brown stuff really got its name, new charred oak barrels and bottling. But my favorite chapter so far is chapter eight, “An American Whiskey Sampling Guide.” The purpose of the chapter is to “help you sample the output of every American whiskey distillery.” He notes “such a guide is necessary because most distilleries sell essentially the same whiskey under multiple brand names, so if you buy bourbons at random you might end up tasting the same whiskey over and over, and miss others.”
He gives a value bourbon, a higher-shelf, and a rye (if available) from each of the 14 distilleries he names. That may have changed by now (the book was published in 2004) but it a great place to start if you want to take a journey around the American whiskey universe over the next several months.
I won’t name all the whiskeys he recommends here as you might not buy the book and read it and you need to. But I did discover that I had already sampled many of them.
My Bourbon List
Here are the ones I haven’t tried and look forward to sipping over the next few months.
Old Grand-Dad 114 – Beam (Now owned By Suntory)
Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond, Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond – Heaven Hill (Private, Family-owned)
Russell Reserve’s 10 Year, 101 Proof Rye – Wild Turkey (Now owned by Campari)
George Dickel No. 12 (Tennessee Whiskey) – George Dickel (Now Owned by Diageo)
Virginia Gentleman 6 year 90 Proof – A. Smith Bowman (Now Owned by Sazerac)
100 Proof Old Forester – Early Times (Owned By Brown-Forman)
Blanton’s – Buffalo Trace (Now owned by Sazerac)
If you’d like to purchase the book from Cowdery’s blog, go here. (And I don’t get a kickback.)
Now let me get back to reading this gem — and sampling a little taste of some more great bourbons.